FOOTBALL LEAGUE fanatic Tom Love (@TomLove_18) runs the rule over the runners and riders in the League Two play-offs ahead of the semi-finals, sharing his views on who might be celebrating promotion at Wembley later this month.
Mansfield (17/10 Betfair)
Mansfield missed out on automatic promotion on the final day after losing out to MK Dons 1-0. That meant the Stags has to settle for fourth despite being in the top three for most of the season. Town have lost their last three games so gaffer David Flitcroft has a big job on his hands, boosting his players ahead of the play-offs.
Squad Strength – Mansfield have much more in terms of squad depth compared to most teams in this league. They’re one of the biggest spenders in the league which has brought the best players to the club. They’ve had 17 players who have played at least 12 games. Their ambition has meant they’ve been able to attract high-profile loan signings too in Tyler Walker and Jorge Grant from near neighbours Nottingham Forest.
Going forward – Mansfield have plenty of pace going forward with the likes of Walker and CJ Hamilton. If defences decide to play a high line against Mansfield it could be to their detriment as not only do their strikers boast running power but also excellent finishing ability. Walker (22) and Hamilton (11) are the top scorers for the Nottinghamshire side and their partnership has kept the likes of Danny Rose and Nicky Ajose out of the side.
Hot Heads – Discipline hasn’t been the strongest point of this side and it has cost them on some occasions. Neal Bishop and Ryan Sweeney have picked up 11 yellow cards each this term and Matt Preston has picked up 12 yellows and one red. Preston’s concussion keeps him out but the bookings market might be of interest elsewhere, given the magnitude of the games.
Faltering Form – Mansfield were so close to automatic promotion but the Stags lost it at the last, losing against Oldham, Stevenage and MK Dons. They’ve thrown it away as MK were also stuttering, that will be fresh in the minds of the players and could seriously dent their confidence ahead of these crunch games. It’s all about momentum when it comes to the play-offs and it’s certainly not on their side.
This side certainly has the squad to go up however with form not on their side, and confidence likely to be low, I don’t fancy their chances against an in-form Newport. I’m slightly surprised to see them as short as 17/10 to gain promotion.
Value Rating: 2/5
Newport (9/2 SkyBet)
It’s been quite a remarkable few years for Newport, if we rewind two years and remember that unbelievable 89th minute Mark O’Brien strike against Notts County which kept the Exiles in the EFL on the last game of the season.
Local lad Michael Flynn took the helm on a temporary basis in March that campaign and guided County to seven wins in 12, which was the catalyst for survival. That doesn’t seem two minutes ago but it meant that County simply had to appoint Flynn on a permanent deal and how they’ve been repaid for doing so.
I’ve seen plenty of Flynn in his playing days for Bradford and although he wasn’t the greatest technically, he always ran himself into the ground and was a key member in the dressing room. Those qualities and values have transmitted into his coaching style and it’s no surprise that teams higher up are looking at him.
Since that last day drama Newport have finished a respectable mid-table and managed to secure this play-off spot after a big win at home to Oldham and then a requisite point away at Morecambe on Saturday. It continues their quite outstanding campaign which has seen memorable cup wins over Leicester and Middlesbrough and a bumper crowd at home to the champions Man City.
Supreme Spirit – The team spirit in this tight-knit squad is there for all to see, they just don’t know when they’re beaten. A lot of credit has to go to Flynn for canny recruitment, of not only influential players, but also infectious characters, something that cannot be underestimated in League Two. We’ve seen this side outperform the odds time and time again and trust them to revel in being the underdogs of the play-off quartet.
Identity – There’s a clear identity about Newport; they play to their strengths and it may not always be the prettiest but it’s mightily effective. Big Jamille Matt up front complements the clever Irishman Padraig Amond superbly well and they’ve got plenty of big lads who can mix it in the penalty areas from set pieces. Watch out for Micky Demetriou and his gargantuan throw in – it’s an extra weapon in the County armoury which many teams tend to struggle with.
Defying The Data – Although the Welsh club finished in the top seven, they have overachieved when we look into the underlying performance data. Newport are rated 10th in the league in Expected Goals (xG) ratio, and drop to 12th when looking specifically at xG from open play, which highlights their reliance from set-pieces.
Limited Options – Unlike Mansfield, Newport have a relatively threadbare squad in terms of depth. Much of it to do with the finances available. They’ve managed to get a few loans in from the club over the Severn in Bristol City with Tyreeq Bakinson and Antoine Semenyo beefing up the squad but the latter has returned to his parent club.
Newport are certainly a team to be feared. They’re in-form, undefeated in their last 10 (W6-D4-0L0) and have proved extremely difficult to beat. The Exiles could have done with the second leg being at Rodney Parade but if they can go into the second leg with a league then their well-documented grit and determination could see them through to the final.
County remind me in many regards of the Bradford side of 2013/14 who gained promotion to League One via the play offs. Like that Bantams side they’ve snuck into seventh, played a big-man, little-man combination up front and they’ve a team full of hard working professionals with a commendable attitude. I certainly think they’re overpriced at 9/2.
Value Rating: 4/5
Forest Green Rovers (11/4 Bet365)
Going about their business slightly under the radar have been Forest Green. The Green Devils have been nestled in the play-off picture for a while now and owner Dale Vince will be hoping his investment will reap rewards with promotion to League One.
Rovers are a well-run club and despite being relatively small in stature they’ve managed to more than hold their own against the big boys. FGR never really looked like challenging the automatic places but they’ve done well to get to this point after only enjoying their debut season in the EFL last term.
Balanced squad – Mark Cooper identified that was his squad was a bit too top heavy back in January last season and made a few clever defensive signings in that of the experienced Gavin Gunning and the younger Farrend Rawson. Since then there’s been much more of a balanced look about the team and although they probably don’t score as many as they used to, they’re giving much less away.
Full back Joseph Mills has been an inspired signing and given an extra dimension down the wing, and the unexpected return of Christian Doidge has only boosted the goal threat.
Brilliant Brown – FGR have one of the stars of the league in their midfield maestro Reece Brown. Brown not only picked up the club’s Player of the Year award but was also picked for the PFA League Two team of the year. His impressive output of 10 goals and 12 assists has not gone unnoticed and plenty of clubs will be keeping tabs on the former Birmingham academy product.
Brown also boasts the most successful passes in the league, as well and many of those have been passes that lead to goals or strong scoring opportunities. It shows his all-round ability and Cooper will be hoping to get him in dangerous positions between the lines once more in the play-off campaign.
Overachievers? – The Nailsworth based club finished comfortably in the play-offs but delve into their underlying numbers and there’s an argument that they’ve possibly been a tad fortunate over the season.
Rovers actually rank as a bottom-half team on the xG metric with only a 50.2% ratio, as well as similar figures in the Shots In The Box metric. What we can take from this is they’ve scored quite a few goals from unlikely angles; off my head I can long-range efforts from the likes of Brown, Carl Winchester and Dayle Grubb. They may have to rely on those shooting qualities once more unless they improve in the final third.
Uncharted Territory – Not so much a criticism but more of a question mark over FGR would be the fact they haven’t played in at this stage in the EFL before. That lack of experience could be a determining factor in whether they manage to cope with the pressure of the play-offs.
The stats don’t have Forest Green down as one of the league’s top sides but there is a real togetherness in the squad and Cooper has done a sterling job in his time there. They’re a settled club but I think ultimately, they could be undone if opposition can get a hold of Brown to stop him from dictating play. At the prices I’d probably have them a tad longer than what is on offer.
Value Rating – 2/5
Tranmere (11/4 William Hill)
Much like Forest Green, this Tranmere team have a well thought of manager who’s been at the club for a while in Micky Mellon. Considering this is Rovers’ first year back in the EFL, to finish in sixth is an admirable achievement.
The Super White Army are well backed by their loyal supporters and they have been especially strong when playing at Prenton Park. They’ll be bang up for this and it’s a team that’s played at a higher level in the past and they’ll be eager to get back to League One.
Rock Solid Defence – Tranmere have built from the back this year and with the trident of Scott Davies between the sticks and the two centre-halves, Emmanuel Monthe and Steve McNulty. Rovers have been virtually impenetrable and that sound base has seen the Wirral club pick up an impressive 19 clean sheets. Rovers’ resolve will be a major contributor should they go up.
Experience – Turn the clock back a year and Tranmere were playing in the National League play-offs – firstly, getting past Eastleigh and then conquering Boreham Wood in the final at Wembley. That experience is immeasurable and they’ve kept the crux of that squad intact; Rovers know what’s required, it’s just whether they can step up to the increase in quality needed in this league.
Reliance on Norwood – If it wasn’t for hitman James Norwood then Tranmere would probably be bottom half fodder. He’s managed to notch 29 goals, seven clear of anyone else in the league. They play to his strengths and his partnership with Connor Jennings has been excellent.
If teams do manage to stop Norwood then they usually stop Tranmere. Their second top scorer is Jennings with eight. It’s true that their sturdy defence has meant that they haven’t had to score as many as their counterparts, but with standard of opposition naturally rising here it could prove their undoing.
Subdued Shooting – Tranmere are ranking around seventh on most of the data metrics, which does back up their league position, but one metric they’re not so strong on is volume of shots from dangerous areas. The Whites are 10th in Shots In The Box ratio, boasting only a marginal supremacy. Although they keep most sides from shooting from inside the 18-yard box, there are 14 sides that have more shots in the penalty area than Tranmere.
Backed by a vociferous crowd and with recent memories of a successful play-off campaign, I’d expect the Super White Army to do well. Tranmere have the first leg at home which could be seen as a disadvantage but the New Lawn is far from an intimidating arena.
Rovers will be pinning their hopes on Norwood to score the goals to send them up but with their excellent defensive record they might only need one or two goals to do so. I thought they’d be slightly shorter than the 11/4 offered and it could represent some degree of value.
Value Rating – 3/5